LONDON – He was in his nineties – an old man leaning on his cane, walking slowly down the steps of the Imperial War Museum, one painful step at a time.
His clothes were shabby, but I could see as he approached and sat next to me on a bench in the sunshine to catch his breath that his eyes were shining.
“What did you do in the war?” I asked him.
He turned and smiled, looked at me, perhaps glad of someone to talk to.
“Royal Corps of Signals,” he said.
“How was it?”
“I was 20, what did I know?” he said. “To me it was a Cook’s tour. Benghazi, Tripoli, Cairo, Italy, Croatia. We were all over.’”
Somewhere along the way he had been badly wounded. “Caught on the wrong side of a refinery fire,” was how he explained it. “Lost all the skin down one leg from my hip to my ankle.”
He spent weeks in a military hospital, but counts himself as one of the lucky ones.
“Twice lucky, really.”
During the Blitz, before he was even old enough to be called up, the street where he lived with his parents was demolished by bombs.
“Three houses across from us were completely destroyed. They got it, but somehow our house wasn’t touched, don’t ask me why.”
I asked him if he often visited the war museum.
“Oh yes, I’ve been coming since it used to be in South Kensington. It brings back memories, not all of ‘em bad, you know.”
I had toured the exhibits, glimpsed the horror of Passchendaele, seen the corpses of young men at Vimy, trying to comprehend the unimaginable horror. You could almost smell the dead. And yet it had still seemed somehow remote.
Talking to the man from the Royal Signals Corp had brought the museum to life.
I shook his hand. There was something I wanted to say, not just to him, to all of his generation.
“Thank you, Thank you for everything that you did.”
On the Lambeth Road, In the sunshine of south east London, the words seemed trite and inadequate, but I said them anyway.